LINWOOD — Mainland Regional girls soccer coach Alex Weidman eased freshman Camryn Dirkes into the lineup as a defender to start her varsity career, but in mid-October he decided her athleticism was needed up top, so he pushed her forward to an attacking position. The results have been eye-opening.
Dirkes — the younger sister of former boys basketball standout Taylor and current senior cross country star Emily — has scored 10 goals in the past 18 days, including three during the Mustangs' 6-0 win over Highland in the South Jersey Group 3 quarterfinals. Dirkes' hat trick helped propel second-seeded Mainland into a semifinal matchup against No. 3 Toms River South on Tuesday afternoon. The other semifinal features Mainland nemesis Ocean City taking on top-seeded Moorestown.
"Camryn's a great player and super athletic. We actually started her on defense originally but then brought her up, and she's been a great asset to the team," said senior defender Alivia Handson.
"You kind of ride the hot hand when you're in the playoffs," Weidman added. "Whoever is stepping up and playing well you keep going with them, and Camryn has done a great job for us up there, so we're rolling with her. I'm really proud of her, she's lighting the world on fire, so that's awesome for the team and for her."
Dirkes didn't waste much time in keeping her hot streak going, as less than four minutes into the game she ran under a long pass into the box from Handson and beat Highland's keeper to give Mainland (18-3-1) an early 1-0 lead over the Tartans (6-9-1). The Mustangs then scored twice more in the final 15 minutes of the first half, as Mary McLaughlin scored an acrobatic goal, running onto a long pass and using a right-footed shot to deposit a shot into the lower right corner, and Dirkes added her second goal with 1:50 left in the half off a nice through ball from midfielder Sage Glover. Mainland's senior-heavy midfield, which includes players such as McLaughlin, Kailyn Gallagher, Taylor Dalzell and Christine Napoli, dominated possession and created all kinds of scoring chances.
"We've been working on a lot of the plays that we executed today, they're all plays we've been working on in practice and what we've been practicing is finally being executed on the field," Handson said. "We're keeping great composure, I think, which has helped us. We're united and we know our different players and what their strengths are, and that's helping us get better chances on net."
"If a team is going to beat us they are going to have to beat us through the middle of the field, and we try to keep our strongest players there," Weidman said. "We believe in them and we trust them to get the job done, and they've really stepped it up. You've seen a different level from them in the playoffs, so we're proud of the seniors. We're also proud of the younger girls stepping up and understanding their roles."
Dalzell pushed the lead to 4-0 early in the second half when she scored from about 25 yards out on a direct kick, and Gina Geraci and Dirkes closed out the scoring with goals in the final nine minutes.
Mainland — which has never won a sectional title — seems intent on making it to the finals this year, especially after being bounced in the quarterfinals a year ago with a team that was talented enough to challenge for a championship.
"I'm excited to play Toms River South. All these teams are competitive, but we like tight competition. It pushes us to work harder and to play better. I'm excited for Tuesday," Handson said.
"Anytime you have past experience, you have to learn from them. You're either learning or you're staying still. We're trying to learn from our mistakes in the past and use them as growing pains, but also use them as lessons for this year. We've definitely learned from some of our lessons," Weidman said. "We lost in this round last year, and it was more on effort and energy — and today we didn't lack for that. That's key when you're in the playoffs, you just have to play hard and play your game, and hope for the best after that. No Mainland team has ever won South Jersey, so this group of seniors and this team in general wants to be the first, and be part of the team that does it first. They are hungry and ready to go."
Contact Dave O'Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays